I confess that the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book was not familiar to me. Nor did I know about the performance noted in the title. So I’m so happy that Margarita Engle discovered young Teresa and shared this heart-warming story.
Title: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln
Written By: Margarita Engle
Illustrated By: Rafael López
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers/2019
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: music, refugee, immigrant, courage, biography
When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mamá sang lullabies while Papá showed Teresita how to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of a piano.
Brief Synopsis: The story of how a young pianist, the “Piano Girl” Teresa Carreño, performed for President Lincoln and his family at the White House during the dark days of the Civil War, as the family was grieving the death of their son.
Links to Resources:
- Teresa was born in Venezuela. Find out more about this South American country;
- Teresa performed a song about a Mockingbird. Learn more about this bird;
- Listen to the Mockingbird was a popular song in America in the mid-19th century. Listen to a recording of it;
- Learn more about Teresa in the Historical Note and see the Curriculum Guide for further insights;
- Teresa played the piano to cheer up President Lincoln and his family. What can you do to cheer up a friend, family member, or neighbor?
Why I Like this Book:
In Dancing Hands, Engle introduces readers to a famous 19th century pianist, Teresa Carreño. Readers learn that Teresa loved playing the piano as a young child in Venezuela, but that sometimes she “had to struggle” to play the “stubborn music”. Despite these struggles, Teresa persisted and became an accomplished pianist at a young age.
When Teresa was eight years old, her family fled conflict and sailed to New York City, where Teresa “felt lost”, lonely, and sad, especially as no one spoke Spanish and the US was embroiled in the Civil War. But when Teresa acquired a piano in New York, her life and playing skills improved. Soon, she was performing in concerts, culminating with a performance at the White House before President Lincoln and his family, shortly after the death of his son and during the bleak days of the Civil War.
I think any child who has felt shy speaking before strangers, nervous before a music recital or worried about a big game will relate to Teresa’s predicament. That a child could brighten a President’s life and bring comfort to him and his family is an important lesson for children and adults that young people, including those who are recent arrivals to a country, can make the world better by sharing their talents.
I also think Dancing Hands reminds readers that music has the power to soothe people in times of trouble, acting as a balm for creators, performers and listeners.
López’s mixed media illustrations reflect Teresa’s moods throughout the story, with bright, tropical colors prevalent when she was happy and darker blues and grays dominating scenes of worry and concern.
A Note about Craft:
Dancing Hands is a biography of a pianist who had a long international career as a professional pianist and singer. But Engle has focused solely on the start of that career, when Teresa was still a child, culminating with this one special performance for President Lincoln. I think by limiting the timespan and focus in this way, Engle has created a picture book that will appeal even to younger children and to which children will more readily relate. Also, by honing in on this one important performance early in her stay in the United States, Engle widens the subject of the book from just the story of a gifted pianist to include her journey as a refugee and immigrant who shared her talents and enriched her new home.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!